Digital assets need to be part of estate planning

Digital assets need to be part of estate planning

Digital assets need to be part of estate planning

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By now, most regular readers of this column are aware of the need to make an estate plan to minimize the difficulty of conveying their financial assets and physical property after death. But what about digital assets?

These are the online accounts in your name that may include files such as images, photos, videos and text; email accounts; and social media and networking accounts such as LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube. What happens to these when you die?

If you don’t plan for the management of your digital assets after death, your family might not be able to access critical information they need from your online accounts. Because of federal privacy laws, most Internet companies won’t be able to ensure that access unless you have taken specific steps beforehand.

Few states have passed laws to solve this problem. In many states, some of your accounts may be deleted upon your death. In others, families must obtain a court order to obtain the rights to view a decedent’s account. The process can take years, during which time the account might be deleted because of inactivity.

Some sites provide solutions. Facebook allows you to name a “legacy contact” — an individual who can post your obituary on your timeline. That individual can respond to new friend requests and update and archive your posts and photos.

Google has an “inactive account manager” feature which allows you to identify “trusted contacts” with whom to share specific data available from your Google and Gmail accounts.

Other sites have similar features, but they all require action on your part to activate them.

In order to avoid potential problems associated with digital assets, it is a good idea to create a digital estate plan. The first critical step is to make an inventory of your digital assets — financial, purchasing and social accounts — and document how to access them after your death.

List all online accounts for brokerage, insurance, banking, credit cards, loans, retirement savings, PayPal, purchasing, email and social media, as well as any blogs and personal websites. Include the usernames and passwords required to access them.

The next step in your digital estate plan should be to develop a safe place to store this information. It can be with your estate attorney, in your safety deposit box or with an organization that provides storage for this information. Your attorney should be able to identify which storage locations are consistent with state laws. There are several organizations that specialize as digital fiduciaries in this field, including EverplansFinal RoadmapSecureSafe and others. Some have annual fees, and some have a one-time fee.

Some states allow you to specify a “digital executor” in your will. If your state does not recognize a digital executor, you should discuss this issue with your estate attorney so that a similar function can be carried out in accordance with state law. The digital executor should be trustworthy and technically competent, and have access to the necessary passwords and to the locations of all important information. He or she should have the responsibility to specify what happens to the nonfinancial digital assets based on your written instructions.

It is up to you to specify in your power of attorney, will and/or trust agreements what happens to your digital assets. Your executor, personal representative and/or trustee will have the responsibility to follow your wishes. If you haven’t discussed digital assets with your attorney, do so.

(Elliot Raphaelson welcomes your questions and comments at

Three Areas You Should Consider in Your Digital Estate Plan

Three Areas You Should Consider in Your Digital Estate Plan

Post By George in Estate Administration

Digital estate planning is the aspect of estate planning dealing with non-physical property, especially online or in the cloud, or in electronic accounts.

There are three areas of digital estate planning:

The first area is online assets that have financial value.

For example, a brokerage account that is only accessible online; an online bank account; an eBay account; or a sales account from a business where the value of it is only accessible online. Where there’s a financial value – something that can be measured readily in dollars – then that obviously has a value, and the executor or administrator would have a duty to collect it.

Most people can readily understand this aspect of planning, and it’s the easiest category. A good planner should ask, “So, do you have any money or securities or property that you can access only through the internet?”

The second broad category are items that may have tremendous emotional value, without any financial value.

The best example of this would be photographs. Whether through Facebook or Instagram or photo-specific archive sites, people have electronic assets in the form of images and videos that may not have any dollar value, but could have an exceptionally significant emotional or legacy value.

A person doing their estate planning may have specific wishes about such property – not only who gets what, but whether some of it should be destroyed and how it should be handled. You can certainly imagine someone having specific ideas about who has access to the photos, or leaving a specific instruction that some should be accessible and others not.

Conversely, in a decedent’s estate, just because there’s no financial value doesn’t mean that an executor or administrator doesn’t need to worry about electronic property! If it exists as an asset, then it’s potentially property that belongs in the estate, which means that a beneficiary could potentially demand to receive it.

A third aspect of digital planning, which is distinct from the other two, is what I’m calling the process value or the administration value.

There’s a finality in closure. By this I mean the idea that the executor has a duty to not only find online property and distribute it, but also to resolve, shut down and close out online accounts, whether email accounts or some other kind of online presence. Just as an executor has a duty to return an apartment to the landlord, the executor theoretically – and the law is evolving on this – has a duty to deal with the online accounts.

A close-to-home example: my mother died recently, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from her saying that she had traveled to London and lost her passport, and I should wire her money so she could get back safely. Spam is always annoying, but never moreso than when it comes from your dead mother!

Thorough and thoughtful estate planning means planning for all assets, including so-called digital assets. Similarly, in an estate, an executor or administrator wants to be mindful of marshaling and managing not only real and tangible property, but also electronic/digital/online assets and rights.

What Happens to Your Online Stuff After You Die?

What Happens to Your Online Stuff After You Die?

Many people write wills for their physical property, but few even think about creating a plan for their digital estates. Without such a plan, your loved ones might be unable to access your digital files or the accounts could be deleted before they see them.

A digital estate plan can help ensure that every online account will be accessed or transferred to the right person. And for those with networks of online-only friends and work colleagues, a digital estate plan can help inform those virtual friends of one’s actual demise.

Let’s start with a look at the nature of the problem, and then we’ll look at some solutions.

Terms of Service Agreements

Remember those “I agree” boxes you checked next to Terms of Service Agreements without so much as glancing at the fine print? They typically restrict “non-authorized users” (in other words, your survivors) from accessing your accounts.

Plus, they often say accounts are nontransferable. While people violate service agreements all the time without repercussions, the agreements are legal contracts and violating them is a crime, although a misdemeanor. Social media companies often say they allow heirs to delete the deceased’s account and not much else. Photos, comments and stories, everything else (good and bad) is lost.

A digital estate plan will help your executor access and manage your online possessions. While they do not guarantee access (because of those service agreements), they often persuade a service provider to approve login access, especially since the contracts can change.

Creating Your Digital Estate Plan

Experts recommend following these steps.

1. Create an Inventory

Make a list of your online accounts with their usernames and passwords. Include social media sites, online bank accounts and credit cards, and utilities paid online. Remember to update them when changing accounts and passwords or at least once a year.

2. Save It

Store them in a secure location like a safe deposit box, CD, flash drive, or encrypted computer file. Password managers such as LastPass or1Password make it easy to encrypt and securely store such data. Another popular password manager — PasswordBox — includes a feature called “Legacy Locker” that stores logins and passwords and shares them with designated people upon your death.

Don’t include your logins and passwords in your actual will, which becomes part of probate court’s public records.

3. Name a Digital Executor

Your digital executor can be different from your regular executor. The digital executor should be digitally adept and, like your traditional executor, be impartial and trustworthy. Be specific and name accounts the executor will be able to control, delete, and maintain.

4. Say What You Wish to Happen

Define what you wish to happen to your accounts. Do you want your Facebook account deleted or memorialized? Let your executor know if you’re using Google’s Inactive Account Manager. Your executor is obligated to follow your instructions.

What Google, Facebook and Others Will Do

Google recently introduced its Inactive Account Manager. You can use the tool to name a “trusted contact” to be contacted if a Google account, such as Gmail, YouTube, or Blogger, becomes inactive for any reason. If your account is inactive for a period of time, which you choose, Google sends you a text or email. If you don’t respond, Google can — based on your instructions — delete the accounts or allow trusted contacts “to receive data” from the accounts.


Facebook won’t release login information but will delete or “memorialize” an account on the request of heirs. Memorialized accounts are essentially frozen in time. No one can login or add or change photos or anything else. Depending on the privacy settings of the deceased person’s account, friends can share memories on the memorialized Timeline.


LinkedIn says it will shut down profiles of deceased members on request. It asks heirs to complete and electronically sign a form via DocuSign. If heirs have login information, they may want to download the deceased’s contacts, although it’s legally unclear if the contact lists belong to the LinkedIn members or their company.


Twitter will shut down accounts of deceased users on request. According to Twitter’s policy, heirs have to mail or fax a signed statement, a copy of the death certificate, and a copy of a government-issued ID like a driver’s license.

Digital Media

When consumers purchase digital music and e-books, they technically only buy licenses to view or hear them. For instance, the iTunes terms of service agreement says accounts are nontransferable and will end if users don’t meet the terms. But if agreements allow multiple computers per account, heirs could use that loophole to claim the purchased media.

Missing Login Information?

If a relative passes away without leaving login information, heirs might be able to obtain access with the proper documentation and patience.

Google says it might provide Gmail access if heirs send a copy of the heir’s government-issued ID and the death certificate. But it makes no promises and warns the wait can be long.

YouTube says it might grant access “only after a careful review” if heirs provide a copy of the death certificate and power of attorney document.

Because the concept of digital wills is relatively new, it’s unclear how the issue will evolve. Internet firms could change policies after more requests from grieving families. Few states have laws on digital estates but more may address the topic in coming years. Despite the uncertainty — or maybe because of it — creating a digital estate plan can help your family access your virtual self before it, too, expires.

Have you considered what will happen to your digital self — and your digital property — after you pass? What steps have you taken? Please share in comments (which are forever, unless something happens to the server, or an heir asks that they be removed).